It was like watching a movie, but not a slick Hollywood movie. Instead of two absurdly beautiful twenty-somethings, two geezers star in my movie: Gene, known as old Gray Beard, and me, his wife and once-upon-a-time babe.
The night before the movie begins, in a hotel in Playa del Carmen, I made a suggestion that seemed benign at the time: "Let's go to Cozumel tomorrow."
Sitting on the bed drinking a beer, Gene said, "I'd rather sit under a banyan tree and drink beer."
My thinning brow arched. "What? How could you?" I slapped the tour book down on the nightstand.
"Easy. Just watch me," he said. "Besides it'll be mobbed with tourists."
"We can rent a motor scooter," I paused. "And go to the far side of the island."
"I'm tired," he said. "I'd rather sit."
"But that's what you always do: sit and drink beer."
Gene was up on his feet trying to stare me down. "Can't you leave me alone for one day?"
I met him eye to eye. "But this is our dream vacation." And then I delivered the winning whine: "You promised."
Sometimes winning is losing.
The movie begins on a beach road in Cozumel. In the Hollywood version, the lusty, young stars race by straddling a sleek new motorcycle. In my version, we senior citizens, on a rusty old Moped, putt-putt along on a bike that wobbles like an old drunk.
Our Moped ride continues into the afternoon when we approach the outskirts of the village of Cozumel. We manage the first stop by dragging our feet; the brakes don’t work that well on the rental. Rounding a corner, we hit a bump. I wonder why we’re speeding up. I grip his waist as we move faster and faster heading for the side of a building -- I can’t believe this piece of junk can go this fast. Questions like: “Is he really that pissed at me? Did he stroke?” run through my mind as the side of the building crumbles like a piece of stale wedding cake. The motorbike flies up and backwards -- this scene has been shot in slow motion -- and we land in a twisted heap on the sidewalk.
Within minutes an ambulance arrives. I’ve somehow gotten up on my feet and am watching the scene. Two guys in faded, baggy t-shirts and worn jeans move toward Gene, slouched against the curb. I wonder, “Could these guys be the EMTs?” They get him on his feet and try to walk him to the ambulance. He grabs for the guys yelling, “Help me. Help me man.” Worry creeps in. Gene, the Marine, never asks for help.
I briefly relax inside the ambulance, which is modern, even luxurious. The carpeting is lush and unstained. The ride is smooth. I let myself imagine a happy Hollywood ending. After all, rich tourists from all over the world visit Cozumel. Of course the medical care will be top notch.
After the accident, the two Hollywood stars are rushed to a peaceful clinic overlooking the sea. Although exotic and romantic, the facilities are up to date and efficiently run by beautiful people speaking perfect English who never mention money.
In the movie I’m watching, Gene is carried on a gurney into a room with whitewashed walls, concrete floors, and beds covered in thick green plastic. Privacy curtains are missing. The room is swarming with chattering humanity hanging out, gawking, or trying to sell something. A guy in an off-white coat -- I call him El Doctor, though there’s no way to know -- appears to be in charge. He takes X-rays and returns within minutes holding up a cloudy plastic sheet to a fluorescent bulb. Pointing to a foggy area on the film, he says, almost gleefully, “See? Broken hip. Needs surgery.”
When El Doctor turns his back, the crowd comes at Gene for money like starving dogs after a bone. Shaking and pale, he manages to pull his billfold from his pocket, open it, and wave it like a crow flapping its wings yelling, “No dinero. No dinero.”
They next pounce on me. I deal with the cop first, of course. He wants payment for something or other. I’ve learned over the years not to argue with a uniform, so I obediently hand him 500 pesos, which nearly cleans out my peso supply.
Next I attend to the guy who rented the Moped because he won’t let go of my arm. He looks up at me from armpit level with big teary eyes, “I’m a poor man with family. My bike is ruined. Por favor, senora.” He asks for $3000 pesos, or is it dollars? I give him the card number. He says he needs the security code all the while clutching my arm. He breaks me down with those cocker spaniel eyes.
After that, I take on a pin-stripped suit with pant legs dusting the floor. He seems to be an official clinic guy who demands a deposit of $8000 pesos or we have to leave el clinico. “Go where?” I wonder.
“We no take insurance,” he says.
I follow him down a tiled hallway. We pass a bent shadow of a woman, in black from head to toe, stooping over a metal bucket holding a mop. I wonder, “Is she part of the clinic staff, or did she stroll in with the crowd and decide the place could use a mopping?” I’m expecting her to get in line for pesos from the gringo, but she doesn’t seem to notice anything but her mop and the floor.
In an office/waiting room, I hand the clinic guy my debit card. In a few minutes he stands up from behind the counter.
“Senora, card no work.”
“What? I just used it this morning. Try again.” I add a “Por favor”.
In a few more minutes, “Is no good.”
Flopping into a chair, I imagine Gray Beard, out on the street on an old board with wheels, begging tourists for a handout, and me, by his side, with very, very heavy make up and a slinky dress, practicing the world’s oldest profession.
An ugly thought bubbles up. Is it possible? Nearly an hour has passed since I’d given the Moped rental guy my credit card number and security code: enough to order almost anything from the Internet. Stupid, I know.
And then I remember a rarely used credit card hidden away in my billfold. In a few minutes the suit hands me what looks to be a receipt for $8000 pesos: a brief reprieve.
For the next few minutes, I sit back, close my eyes, and pretend Gray Beard and I are relaxing on our back porch. He’s drinking beer and I’m nagging him, fondly. The vision of sweet boredom is interrupted when I see him on the gurney rolling down the hall. I pull myself up and take after him.
They wheel Gene into a white room with sliding doors of corrugated-plastic sheeting. A small alcove has a sink and a porcelain toilet bowel, no seat, no cover. But the place is spotless, not a fleck of dust, not a stray hair.
It appears to be a hospital room except for the missing mess of wires and beeping monitors. A rack with a hook for an I.V. bag is the only piece of equipment. Looks like the clinic blew their pesos on the ambulance.
Two women in the room resemble nurses in a movie from the 50s: white nylon dresses, little white caps, and white shoes. They are clearly planning to move Gene from the gurney into the bed. I wait for them to adjust the bed, which is a foot or so lower, and then do the old one, two, three -- or rather uno, dos, tres -- lift, as shown in hospital scenes in hundreds of movies. Instead, the two grunt and struggle and push him off the gurney. He falls to the lower bed on his left hip. The bad one. He yells out and then convulses. I stand dumbly by.
On a pain scale of one to ten, he looks to be twenty. On top of a broken hip and shock, I wonder whether there are internal injuries. More shaking and twitching. I latch onto a foggy memory of Lamaze from twenty-six years earlier, which I’d abandoned for an epidural after a few contractions. “Breathe,” I yell, “long deep breaths through your nose: one, two, three, four.” I can’t remember the sequence so I wing it. “Now, five short shallow breaths.” I’m desperately hoping for the: “Get the fuck outta here,” which is New Yorkese for: “no way am I going along with this foolishness.” But instead, Gray Beard, the Marine, reared in the South Bronx, seems to be trying to follow my directions.
At last, probably to shut me up, he stops jerking and settles down to tremors. I stroke his arm and my heart swells in my chest. I wonder if it’s love or a heart attack. Old Gray Beard of mine: soft as a rose petal and hard as an axe blade, refined as a scholar and crude as a toothless hermit. Fascinating. At times. Only yesterday, though, I imagined holding a pillow over his face until he stopped twitching. Now I would give my life to save his sorry ass. Must be love.
Shortly after the nurses leave, El Doctor visits for the first and last time. He does no doctoring, but rather tells us, speaking some English, that we have to get an air ambulance out of there, that is, unless we want him to do the surgery -- I can just imagine the surgical suite. El Doctor then pivots and vanishes without dropping a single clue as to how.
With no other plan, I latch onto a mission: go get our luggage from the hotel in Playa del Carmen. I run for the ferry, the last one if I’m to get back to the clinic tonight. Morbidly calm on the surface, I focus on the baggage mission, but in the pit of my stomach a horrifying questions lurks: “How long can he survive without medical care?”
Back at the clinic around 11p.m., I shove the luggage into a corner and go to Gene stroking his cheek and giving him kisses on the forehead. He’s even more pale, shaking, and clammy. When I see him I want to scream or puke. I whimper, “I’m sorry.” He says, “Don’t go there.” I swear to God if we don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to lose it.
But something does happen. The clinic guy from the front desk comes into the room. “Telephone for you senora.”
I ask myself who could possibly be calling me? No one knows we’re here. I barely know it.
“I understand you need an air ambulance. I’m Bill calling from the US,” the phone says.
I practically weep from relief. ”You can’t imagine how wonderful to hear your voice.” I start to tell him about the accident.
He cuts me short. “I know you need to get to a hospital in the US, pronto.”
Dumb with desperation, I fail to smell the bullshit.
“I can pick you up tonight and deliver you to a hospital in a couple of hours.”
“Sounds heavenly,” I say. “Uhh…how much will it cost?”
“The charge is $22,000, US dollars. Medicare will not cover it.”
“Twenty two thousand dollars?” I repeat slowly as my stomach sinks into my socks. “I don’t have that kind of cash.” I pause for a few seconds. ”But I can get it once we get back home.” I wonder if this is true.
“No ma’am. You’ve got to have it up front.”
“There must be some other way. Some cheaper way,” I say.
“No. That’s the standard rate for an ambulance flight.” A lie I learn later.
“Please help us. I’m good for it. We have property. I have references.” I grovel.
“Most folks call relatives to wire money,” he says.
On the way back to Gene’s room, I tiptoe around the wet tiles in the hall. The old woman in black, stooping low, swishes her mop back and forth, back and forth.
In Gene’s room: “Does your sister love you twenty two grand worth?” I say. “I just spoke to the air ambulance operator. He says to get relatives to wire money.”
Gene goes off: “I’m not even worth twenty two thousand. No Fucking way. I’ll lay here and rot first.”
In a way it’s a good sign; he still has some of his old spunk. But I know he’s dead serious.
“Before I’ll pay the bastards that amount you can throw me in the back of a pick-up with a handful of pain pills and drive me to the border,” he says.
The sickening truth is: he’d actually do it.
Little sleep happens in the room that night. Gene sighs and moans, I grind my teeth, and the nurse pops in every hour or so. I hear him say, “Mucho dolor.” The nurse says things I can’t understand except: “Pee-pee, poo-poo?” Sometimes the answer is: “Si” to pee-pee, but never to poo-poo. I know this man. He’d bust a gut before he’d poo-poo in the little pan and if I don’t get him out of here soon, that’s exactly what he’ll do.
When morning finally arrives, the no’s continue to pile up: no sane plan to get out of here, no toilet seat, no heart monitor, no doctor, and evidently no food. I offer to go find a taco but Gene says he’s not hungry. His voice, which usually fills a room, sounds far away. All I can think to do is to go out, get on the Internet, and search for answers.
On my way out of the clinic a shrine, in a dark corner at the end of the hall, catches my attention. I’m drawn to it. Icons, framed pictures, and beads glitter in the light of several small candles at the base of a figure: the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Mexico, she is more common than Jesus on the cross. Fine with me. I’d never developed a close relationship with Jesus.
Do I dare ask The Lady for a favor? She must know I don’t believe she’s a virgin. She might be vengeful. Oh what the hell. I bow my head: “Please help us find a way out of this damn mess. Por favor,” I whisper.
Outside the clinic is like stepping into La-La land: a cloudless, brilliant-blue sky, white sand, liquid turquoise water, and happy, frolicking tourists. The scene is totally wrong. It should be a dark and rainy day.
In a couple of blocks, I’m drawn toward a woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of a cafe. I ask her about a place to get on the Internet.
She points inside and looks directly into my eyes, a kind and wise and concerned look. I lose it and choke out the whole sorry story as seen through fear-colored glasses. ”My husband. An accident. His hip. Twenty-two thousand to save him. My account’s tapped.” I gasp for air.
She puts her arm around me. She speaks English. “Come in. I’ll get you some food and coffee. No charge.”
I haven’t yet shed a tear, but this unexpected act of kindness reduces me to a blubbering mess. I’m tempted to ask if she is a Virgin.
Inside, the café, I sit at a wooden table before a laptop with a mug of coffee, hiccupping from the outburst. I access my bank account. Strange. It’s untouched except for the $300 the rental guy charged me, just like he said. Good news. But why was my card blocked?
My angel serves me a large bowl of granola with fresh fruit and yogurt: cool and luscious. The cloud over my head is not quite as dark. She points to a woman sitting at a far table and tells me that the woman’s mother had broken her hip, stayed in the same clinic, and was flown out by air ambulance. My ears perk up.
I dash to her table. She tells me her mother had trip insurance that paid for her ambulance flight. I mumble something about I may or may not have clicked on the twenty-two dollar insurance option on the travel website, but was sure it covered only the cost of the flight. She pats my arm.
I return to my table and stare off. My angel refills my coffee. I sip the strong hot coffee. And then a jolt. I click on the travel website and get the phone number of the insurance company.
Back at the clinic office, where an international phone line is available, I dial just on the outside chance.
I give our names. The agent fools around for a couple of minutes and then: “Yes. You have a policy. It does cover air ambulance.” I nearly jump through the roof. “We have a team that can pick you up in hours,” she says.
“Wait a minute. Oh dear. I’m seeing that that policy was cancelled.”
Then I remember. I had accidently pressed the submit button twice, double booking, and then cancelled. I rebooked the flight later but must have skipped the insurance. Damn me. Damn me. “How many have lived and died by the click of a mouse?” I wonder.
“Well now wait a minute,” she says.
The room is spinning.
“There’s another policy. It appears that you cancelled one and then ordered a second. Yes, here it is.”
I wonder why triumphant music does not burst forth in this movie.
The insurance lady tells me that the flight team will call within an hour. “We should be able to get you out of there tonight,” she says.
I glide into Gene’s room. “Boy oh boy, do I have news for you,” I sing out. “Well darling of mine, an air ambulance is picking us up this very night. They’ll fly us to a hospital back home. It’s all covered by insurance. And for twenty two rather than twenty two thousand.”
“Wow,” he says.
I’d hardly gotten the good news out of my mouth when the clinic guy comes in.
“Senora, before you leave, you must pay.”
“But I paid you 8000 pesos,” I say. “And for what?”
“There is more. I will print out.”
The news of more charges barely makes a dent in my jubilation bubble. I’ll simply hand over my credit card with the five grand limit.
The phone in Gene’s room rings about thirty minutes later. I lunge for it. The team leader tells me that the flight crew will arrive in a couple of hours. I’m drunk with relief.
The insurance lady then cautions: “Make sure you settle your bill with the clinic before we arrive or they won’t release your husband for the flight.”
“Sure, no problem,” I say. I have plenty of time to settle up.
As I’m getting our things together, the clinic guy returns with the itemized bill. “Holy Jesus,” I say. “For one night, a fuzzy X-ray, a bag of saline, and a raggedy hospital gown, they want roughly three thousand dollars.”
The bill lists nearly eight hundred for the so-called orthopedic surgeon who walked into the emergency room, said, “Si senor, the hip is broken,” and then disappeared like a rat down a drain. This happened last night, Gene tells me, while I was in the office paying the deposit.
I choke down the bitter pill. Only one thing can save this movie from a sad ending: money.
In what seems like way less than two hours, two nurses in green scrubs and two guys in slacks and white shirts descend on the room. “Ready to get out of here, Gene?” one of the nurses says.
I want to genuflect and hug and kiss them, but I haven’t yet paid up. I run to the office and hand the guy behind the desk my credit card.
After a couple of minutes of fiddling beneath the counter, he says, “The card no work, senora.”
“What. I just used it last night for the deposit. Try again, por favor.”
Another few minutes, “No work.”
Nausea descends. I’ve seen this scene before and I’m damn sick of it. I whip out my debit card; that account was fine when I checked online this morning.
The clinic guy fiddles some more. I peek over the counter. He’s using one of those metal credit card gadgets last seen in the 80s that slide over the card to make a carbon impression. The guy keeps getting the paper crumpled and has to tug and pull it out and retry. I’m ready to jump over the counter and choke him to death: a sure-fire ticket to hell, or am I already there?
Finally, he looks up and says, “This card no work either.”
One of the flight guys is standing at the door of the office telling me they’re ready to go. I’m about to vomit my holy yogurt and granola. Is the Virgin vengeful after all?
The clinic guy says that sometimes US banks block credit cards used in Mexico and suggests I call the bank.
I get the number from my credit card and call. When I finally get a live person, I beg her to unblock it, that it’s an emergency. The bank person says, “Sorry, but I need to ask you a few questions. Your phone number, please.”
Whew. That’s easy.
“Sorry ma’am. That’s not the number listed.”
It dawns on me that the credit card, which I rarely use, has my old number from a lifetime -- five years -- ago. I tell her the area code, but can’t, for the life of me, come up with the number.
One of the flight nurses, looking worried, sticks her head in my viewing area and points to her watch.
I then remember my debit card. “Wait a minute. I have a debit card. Let’s try that.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to call another number. I don’t deal with debit cards.”
I’m ready to blow. Blood is about to gush like a geyser through the top of my head. Scary. I could commit a heinous deed. I screech into the phone, “In the name of God” -- I’m surprised I bring up His name -- “unblock my card. It’s my Goddamn money. Now give it to me.”
Dark eyes scattered about the office/waiting room intently watch my movie.
The bank woman stammers like I’ve struck her speechless and then tells me she’ll speak to her supervisor.
After I give her my mother’s maiden name, the name of my first pet, and the make of my first car, she finally agrees to release the block.
With little hope, I hand the card to the guy.
“Is good,” he says.
I race out of the office, receipt in hand. Gene is on a gurney in the hall waiting. I take one last glance down the corridor. The mop lady in black is not there. I’m hoping she has also escaped.
The next thing I know, we’re loaded like Hollywood stars into a Learjet, paneled in mahogany with white leather seats. The nurses hover over Gene. I sit at the rear holding his foot. We coo to each other.
While I’m sure I’ll have an urge to shove him in front of a train soon enough, there’s something new in my scrappy love. I know I can lose him in a heartbeat. It’s not a light and airy knowing like: “We all have to die some day,” but rather like a new body part lodged deep down in the curves and coils of my viscera.
For now, though, I luxuriate in a Hollywood ending and blow my guardian angel a kiss to the stars as we jet through the night sky.
by Bill Pieper
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